The corner of Uudenmaankatu and Mannerheimintie

I spent the day returning to scenes from a decade ago, starting with the place I once lived: 33 Uudenmaankatu in the neighborhood of Punavuori. The secondhand bookshop is still on the corner and the Thai spot with the good tom kha soup is still next door. This street feels frozen in time, much like the city’s stern buildings that remind me of battleships. Whenever I come across Goethe’s maxim that architecture is frozen music, Helsinki is what I see.

I rewind the events and decisions that took me away from this city. The sudden death of my mother. Returning to Detroit and then New York and then New Orleans. If my mom were still alive, would I know how to roll my R’s and speak passable Finnish? Would I be more sensible if I hadn’t spent the past decade living in America’s sturm und drang? I do not want to become a man who relitigates the past. This is why some of us meditate and others drink. Doing whatever it takes to stay in the present moment. Strange that this is so hard.

The Caretaker – It’s Just a Burning Memory

From Everywhere at the End of Time | History Always Favours the Winners, 2016 | Bandcamp

A dusty record plays in the other room. Sampling old 78s that decay with each subsequent recording, Leyland Kirby maps the borderlands between nostalgia and despair. Dust motes suspended in sunlight. Old men in libraries. Hushed ballrooms where time has disappeared. It’s the sound of memories blurring before falling apart.

Kotiharjun Sauna, Helsinki

Looking at the sky tonight, I think about Origen of Alexandria, the philosopher who believed the stars were rational creatures and the sun could sing. Maybe we’ve lost something over the past two thousand years, some critical capacity for wonder.

I’ve started reading Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler’s collection of interviews with the artist Robert Irwin. “The wonder is still there,” Irwin says again and again.

In the sauna I chat with a wrinkly man about the unusual weather. “Still no snow,” he says. “Still a black winter.” He douses the rocks and we listen to the steam. At one o’clock in the morning, I visit the döner kebab stand in front of the train station. I talk with a Sioux from South Dakota and a Finn who logged some heavy time in Vegas. Cities are such fantastic inventions. The wonder is still here.

Further reading: Origen of Alexandria, black winter, Robert Irwin, and Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.

Helsinki Central Railway Station

Alone in Helsinki. The sky is pure gloom with rain that hangs in the air, refusing to fall. It’s the weather of moody seaside walks with headphones and an upturned jacket collar. I do not understand the Nordic tradition of standing at an empty intersection, waiting for the light to change even though there is not a car in sight. It spooks me, this devotion to a traffic signal rather than our own eyes and ears. I wander through Helsinki’s elaborate network of shopping malls, admiring the garbled Americana: Restaurants named Vegas and Bronx. A poster with Marilyn Monroe in front of a cactus.

Walking to the bookstore, I’m startled by the muscle memory I’ve retained from this city where I lived a decade ago. I pause on the corner of Aleksaterinkatu and Mannerheimentie, overwhelmed by memory and possibility. I can’t tell if I miss the city itself, the people I knew here, or that last year in my life before I lost my mom and the world still felt big and certain. Regardless of the reason, Helsinki is one of my favorite cities and I fantasize about living here again someday. Near the train station I overhear an old man with a beautiful white beard say, “The situation is that we’re born then we die and what the fuck.”

NǽnøĉÿbbŒrğ VbëřřĦōlökäävsŦ
Journey Through The Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall

From Goodbye, Sol: A Voyage To The End Of Spacetime And Back | 2014 | Download

Also known as Nanocyborg Uberholocaust, this project is an “ambient cosmic extreme funeral drone doom metal band” that claims to be a collaboration between two scientists at a research center in Antarctica. Their tracks are long spiraling exercises in slow-motion reverberations with moments that sound like devotional music for the future. Many thanks to Adam Greenfield for introducing me to this. It’s been the perfect score for reminiscing in the streets of Helsinki. Their catalogue is freely available here.

Turku to Helsinki

The idea cohered on the train somewhere between Turku and Helsinki: take a photograph and write at least three sentences every day to etch these strange times into my memory before they are forgotten. Before the world changes completely. Surely I can manage to write a few semi-interesting sentences about each of my days. At the very least, this will force me to pay closer attention to the world. A new decade seems like the ideal time to begin this exercise.

But why make it public? Left to my own devices, my notebooks are littered with fragments and scribbles that make no sense to me a few days later. Writing for a reader, real or imagined, encourages some semblance of coherence. Making this a daily habit might help me let go of the perfectionism and doubt that have suffocated my writing over the past few years. More importantly, I want to resurrect my personal station in the digital wilderness after sinking far too much time into the fever dream of social media and its idiot scoreboards. So as I take the train from the Finnish archipelago back to the city, here’s to a return to the isles of blogging.

Korppoo-Nauvo Ferry

Last day on the island of Korppoo. Spent a remarkable evening with some of the people who live in the archipelago and our conversations left me thinking about how I would like to live. I admired the camaraderie that pulls the island’s residents together regardless of profession, age, or interest. They know the name of every cashier, teacher, bus driver, and chef in town. These spaces feel increasingly rare in today’s cities where we’re often siloed into career-oriented clusters by the demands of predatory capitalism.

It seems perverse that a deeper sense of community would come from living someplace remote rather than among the crowds of the city. “When you choose to live someplace isolated, you’re choosing solitude,” said an artist who moved to the island a few years ago. “When you feel lonely in the city, it’s not by choice.” For a moment I wanted to stay on that beautiful little island where simply being present mattered to others. New York does not care if you’re there.

After the party I walked to the end of the stone pier by the ferry dock and wondered what choices I would make in this new decade. The Baltic Sea was quiet, the stars were like headlights, and I craved the sound of traffic and crowds.

Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Black City Skyline

From Sunset Mission | Wonder, 2000 | Boomkat

An ode to cities. A cigarette on a dark street slicked with rain while neon blinks mindlessly through the night.

A scene from Persona projected on the studio wall

This season is shaped by muted Bergman films projected on the wall in the hour of the wolf. I can’t shake the first six minutes of The Silence: a bored woman lounges and sweats in a stuffy train car. Another woman coughs and moans, suffering a mysterious illness. A boy watches a violent world of military tanks, harsh sunlight, and factories speed past the window. The scene is silent except for breathing and the hum of the rails, and the whole thing feels like a blurred childhood memory.

Or the scene in Persona when an actress retreats from society as a response to the violence of the evening news and a world she no longer understands. “But you can refuse to move, refuse to talk, so that you don’t have to lie,” she says. “You can shut yourself in. Then you needn’t play any parts or make wrong gestures. Or so you thought. But reality is diabolical. Your hiding place isn’t watertight. Life trickles in from the outside.”

More people die during the black and blue hours just before dawn than any other time, disappearing in car crashes, heart attacks, overdoses, and suicides. They call it the hour of the wolf. In his 1968 film of the same name, Bergman describes these in-between hours as the time “when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fears, when ghosts and demons are most powerful. But the hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.” Our dark hours may be unnerving, but they can bring new life if we face them.

I wonder if living on this remote island so far from home is a way of retreating from the world or better understanding it.

Ingmar Bergman: The Silence (1963), Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968).

Korppoo, Finland

White caps on the Baltic today. Wind like radio static in the trees. I came across moments in the forest that felt ceremonial, the ancient rites of geology operating at scales beyond my comprehension. The scene reminded me of New York City’s canyons of skyscrapers, brownstones, and steeples. Perhaps the city can be as sublime as nature. Scale. Creation.

Walking along a narrow road through the woods, a figure appeared in the distance. He was a man about my size and dressed in a black coat, black pants, black boots, and a cap. Just like me. We slowly walked towards one another and for one mad moment I was convinced I walking towards myself, that I’d slipped into some kind of terrible fable. This is the hallucinatory effect the forest has on me. As we drew closer to each other, I saw he was an elderly man with a warm smile. We nodded hello and continued our separate journeys.

Tribes of Neurot – The Forest That Shelters

Neuorot Recordings, 2007 | Bandcamp

Perfectly sinister forest music built from a bit of feedback and a spiraling guitar.

The island of Utö

We took a ship through the Finnish archipelago towards the small island of Utö in the Baltic Sea. The waves lulled me to sleep and I woke up in tears from a vivid dream about hugging my dad. I’d found him standing in an empty cabin, telling me I could always find him there. It’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing some kind of visitation.

The ship arrived at a long concrete dock and we stepped onto the island with the other passengers: a mother and two toddlers, an elderly couple, and several stern middle-aged men with state-of-the-art cameras and binoculars. No matter where you go, there are always middle-aged men taking things too seriously. Within moments everyone disappeared into the narrow paths between a cluster of red clapboard houses. Suddenly we were alone in a village without cars, people, or sound aside from the January wind and waves. The effect was like stepping into the terrain of a Camus novel and I stared at the empty cabins along the shore, half-wondering if I was still dreaming about my father.

Utö’s colossal stone lighthouse has been recording marine weather observations since 1881. There’s something profoundly reassuring about the nautical language of barometric pressure, trade winds, and shipping lanes. Why is that? Perhaps it’s the combination of physical orientation coupled with atmospheric change.

St Michael’s Church on the isle of Korppoo

I went to a 700-year-old church on Sunday morning and the service was purely tonal because I don’t understand Finnish. It was the most moving sermon I’ve ever heard. Bowing my head, I remembered a line from the poet Anne Carson: “I’ve come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t.” Perhaps this is enough. That, and the grandeur of a pipe organ reverberating across a vaulted stone ceiling while candles flicker in the gloom.

In Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, the residents of an unnamed island suffer the ritual disappearance of objects big and small. Flowers. Lemons. Perfume. Calendars. These erasures are enforced by a surveillance state that deforms the lives of its citizens a little more each day. First published twenty-five years ago, Ogawa’s meditations feel incredibly urgent in today’s atmosphere of attention hijacking, digital disorientation, and alternate realities:

But in a world turned upside down, things I thought were mine and mine alone can be taken away much more easily than I would have imagined. If my body were cut up in pieces and those pieces mixed with those of other bodies, and then if someone told me, “Find your left eye,” I suppose it would be difficult to do so.

This is a haunted fable with secret rooms and voices trapped in typewriters. Although the surreal metaphors of Kōbō Abe or the eerily arid writing of Albert Camus come to mind, Ogawa’s writing draws you into new territory that feels like you’re struggling to recall an evaporating dream.

Sooner or later, any story about loss becomes a story about normalization, and The Memory Police captures the ways we adjust ourselves to fit the cruel logic of the world, whether it is delivered by the power of the state or the cosmic inevitability of death. We can become accustomed to terrible things. Because what’s the alternative? Ogawa provides an answer through moments of kindness, grace, and devotion to the truth—and its final pages are devastating. I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading.

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Penguin Random House, 2019)

An artist led us across boulders covered with electric green moss and worried about the lack of snow this season, something she hasn’t seen after living on this island for thirty years. “Usually we have some snow in November, December, and certainly January.” In Finland they call it a black winter when it doesn’t snow. Snow has psychological importance here: it reflects the light and makes the long hours of Nordic darkness less oppressive. Instead there is only rain and mist. The town’s priest also apologized for the warm weather. “This new climate is beyond me,” he said.

Rafael Anton Irisarri – Coastal Trapped Disturbance

From Solastalgia | Room 40, 2019 | Bandcamp

Symphonic ambience that sounds like an elegy for snow fields and decaying glaciers. This album introduced me to the defining word for this new decade: solastalgia, the mental or existential distress caused by environmental change.

Saint Michael’s church on the island of Korppoo

In the Aeneid, the hero contemplates the tragedy of war. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: There are tears for things and mortal thoughts touch the mind. In the centuries that followed, the phrase lacrimae rerum escaped the lines of Virgil’s poem and took on a life of its own. It appears in sermons, symphonies, and epitaphs, and it has been etched into countless memorials and tombstones. The exact meaning of lacrimae rerum continues to inspire debate among linguists and classicists, for sometimes it is translated as “tears for things,” other times as “tears of things.” Although it’s only a matter of a single letter, the distinction between for and of is crucial—and instructive.

Weeping for something implies that each of us privately mourns the loss of the things we cherish—a person, a relationship, a dream—and that we grieve alone. The tears of things, however, suggests the world weeps with us. Are we alone in our heads with our personal sorrows, or is melancholia as pervasive as sunlight or air?

The tears of things. If I squint at this phrase a certain way, I catch a glimpse of how I might better relate to grief. Maybe the universe is sympathetic, after all. Perhaps the cosmos is aware of the absurdity of our flickering lives. Seen in this light, the devastation I felt after losing my parents is no longer an aberration, but an intrinsic element of the world, as necessary as gravity or air. There is powerful alchemy in this simple thought, even if it is fleeting. Lacrimae rerum reminds me that I am surrounded by compassion while I mourn. This may be a sentimental way of thinking that relies on the romantic notion that the wind, rain, and clouds can somehow mirror my state of mind, but it makes me feel less alone. This can be enough to carry someone through the dark forest of grief. And it might become an organizing principle as the world continues to heat up and unwind.

Further reading: the Aeneid; lacrimae rerum; the pathetic fallacy.

Reverberated Crying

From American Decay | 2015 | Download

Original song performed by Roy Orbison in 1962. This track appears on American Decay, a collection of loops and reverberations that I recorded between 2009 and 2014.

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